What is Headless Commerce: A Complete Guide (2022)

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As we watch the world of ecommerce continue to change dramatically, headless commerce is becoming an increasingly popular setup for brands. 

And it makes sense as we look at the culmination of key ecommerce trends that business owners can’t ignore:

  • Between 2021 and 2025, we’re expecting to see the ecommerce market grow to $11 trillion.
  • Record numbers of new ecommerce stores that equate to sharp increases in competition.
  • Rising costs to acquire customers, forcing brands to focus on building loyalty through personalized, diversified experiences.
  • The death of the third-party cookie—which means it’s time to get creative as you build those personalized experiences.

Simply put: businesses need to harness creative, omnichannel experiences—and do it well—to get shoppers’ attention, convert them into customers, and keep those relationships.

That’s where headless commerce comes in. Headless promises the freedom to create incredible shopping experiences for your customers by unlocking developer experiences. You can sell anywhere without design or development constraints. The world is your storefront. 

But while it has gotten plenty of hype recently, it isn’t for everyone. There are many additional responsibilities, dependencies and costs associated with going headless, which we’ll cover in this article.

Let’s explore headless commerce, why you should consider it, and how to make your first moves if it’s right for you.

Table of Contents

  1. What is headless commerce?
  2. How does headless commerce work?
  3. What are the benefits of headless commerce for your ecommerce site?
  4. What are the benefits of headless commerce for customers?
  5. How do you get started with headless commerce?
  6. Common use cases for headless commerce
  7. Is headless commerce fit for all ecommerce stores? 
  8. Headless commerce vs. traditional commerce
  9. Headless commerce examples

What is headless commerce?

Headless commerce is an ecommerce setup where your store’s frontend is separate from the backend. In this term, “head” refers to the frontend. So “headless” in this case means a commerce store where the frontend and backend are independent of each other.

Before we dig deeper, let’s brush up on these two concepts:

  • Frontend. The customer-facing digital storefront, also called the presentation layer. This can be much more than just a website, including channels like social media, mobile apps, and the billions of devices we use on the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT includes things like smart mirrors, self-serve kiosks, vending machines, wearables, and voice-assisted technology like Amazon Alexa.
  • Backend. All the systems, processes, and tools that run in the background to handle operations and make sure your business is running smoothly. This tech stack can help with activities like merchandising, fulfillment, integrations, data storage, and checkout.

The separation of frontend and backend is important because traditional commerce platforms strictly tie these two elements together. A headless setup separates the two in order to give you more flexibility in the buyer experiences you create.

Brands can use their imagination to build an incredible customer experience that pulls together all kinds of channels and devices—with no limitations or boundaries

How does headless commerce work?

The secret to headless commerce is the API, or application program interface. An API is a connection between the frontend and backend, sending information between the two in realtime.

Customer-facing content is managed on a back-end platform, like a CMS. With headless storefronts, you can leverage multiple backend systems depending on your needs. These systems can include your:

  • Content management system (CMS)
  • Progressive web app (PWA)
  • Customer relationship management (CRM)
  • Digital experience platform (DXP)

These additional SaaS (software as a service) tools build touchpoints for customers, like a mobile app or vending machine. Whenever a customer has a touchpoint with your storefront, an API call sends that info through to your backend.

Customers don’t see anything from your headless backend—just the front user interface you’re using to deliver shopping experiences.

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What are the benefits of headless commerce for your ecommerce site?

Headless commerce is anywhere commerce. It’s flexible. It assumes commerce will rapidly evolve and positions you to be wherever commerce and technology lead.

A headless commerce system helps you accomplish all of this in three key ways:

Faster time to market.

Expedite experiments and changes when you go headless. This alleviates the age-old issue of developers who can’t work on front and backend systems at the same time.

With headless, customer-facing work can be done independently, without having to wait for backend work, and vice versa. It means you can separate copy from code and allow each team to keep moving without depending on the other to finish first.

More control and faster scaling.

Existing systems coded in different languages can prevent critical integrations, even ones that negatively impact the customer experience. Headless plays nice with everyone. 

Data shows 57% of IT and ecommerce leaders said their current platform would be capable of supporting their business for no more than 12 months.

With powerful APIs, headless lets you integrate all of your existing systems (ERP, PIM, IMS, etc.) to build a shopping experience using the programming language of your choice. Not only can it protect you from shifts in technology, headless also gives you the power to move at your own pace and adapt as quickly as commerce itself.

Increased personalization.

With headless, customer behavior is your North Star. It provides developers with additional flexibility in how they want to serve data to customers, regardless of which device they’re on.

Headless allows you to instantly split test what you build so you can optimize the customer experience and your conversion rate. You’re able to deploy changes to any storefront your consumers are shopping, passing data through to each and personalizing the entire customer journey.

Shoppers are 40% more likely to spend more than planned when the shopping experience is highly personalized. Choosing to go headless affords your brand the agility necessary to keep up with changing customer acquisition trends.

What are the benefits of headless commerce for customers?

Balance privacy and personalization.

We’re in a world where online privacy is top of mind for web shoppers. However, research supports the fact that consumers are still open to sharing customer data in return for personalized shopping experiences. Nine in 10 are willing to share behavioral data in return for a cheaper and easier experience.

Headless commerce equips you to collect that data and share it cross platform. If a consumer creates an account on your ecommerce website and continues their shopping journey on a different device (like a smart watch), a headless architecture lets you sync their data across the two.

Provide personalized product recommendations, save shopping carts cross device, and offer the preferred payment option based on a repeat customer’s order history.

A true omnichannel experience.

The customer journey is becoming increasingly more complex: 74% of customers have used multiple channels to start and complete a transaction. Another 76% prefer different commerce channels depending on the context.

Headless and omnichannel make a perfect match because shopping experiences are available for both online and offline consumers. Headless commerce can be a mobile app, an internet of things device such as a smart mirror or watch, voice shopping, a Buy button, or a progressive web app. 

Headless commerce turns any possible customer touchpoint into a sales opportunity while the commerce side is managed from a single backend.

More trust and loyalty to brands.

At the end of the day, every customer wants to know that they can rely on the companies they do business with. While customer loyalty can be tough to achieve (and even tougher to maintain in the long run), there’s a big payoff for both brands and customers.

When customers trust a brand, there’s a sense of mental relief when it comes to making sure their needs are met. Not to mention the peace of mind in knowing they won’t need to spend hours chasing down a package, arguing with customer service, or battling a glitchy or unresponsive storefront.

How do you get started with headless commerce?

There are two main approaches: building your own headless commerce architecture from scratch, or leveraging platforms that already have headless architecture available.

Let’s look at a quick overview of the process.

Determine if you should keep or switch your commerce platform.

For small businesses, adding APIs to your existing commerce platform may be the best route. On the other hand, many mid-market or enterprise companies opt to switch to a SaaS (software as a service) solution. A SaaS platform offers more scalability and flexibility in the long run.

If you’re already on Shopify, you’re in luck. Shopify has plenty of APIs that can help you go headless without ditching your ability to use the commerce functionality you have now.

Pick a headless CMS.

If you’re delivering content to visitors on multiple channels, a headless content management system (CMS) is the way to go. This way, you can use a single CMS to create content specific to each channel and user experience. Your trusty API will sync your frontend and backend, sending the right content to the right touchpoints.

You can choose an open-source CMS or get one from a SaaS provider. An open-source system gives you ultimate flexibility, but you’ll need more specialized knowledge to build and deploy it. SaaS is a great solution if you want to get started quicker and leaner.

Sync your CMS and APIs.

You can think of syncing as “connecting a head” to your headless CMS. This is a critical step of the process—where the proverbial magic happens when it comes to a smooth system that integrates the frontend and backend.

If you’re transitioning from a traditional commerce platform, we recommend taking small steps instead of going all-in at once. Try building out and syncing APIs to smaller sections on your headless CMS, like a blog post or landing page. Test, optimize, and scale up once you’re confident in the process.

Common use cases for headless commerce

Considering how you can use headless commerce to solve your business obstacles or goals? Here are a few common use cases.

Integrating multiple channels

Headless architecture is one of the go-to solutions for brands looking to level-up the multi-channel customer experience. Headless allows you to integrate radically different channels and deliver content seamlessly to each one—all without needing to manage the experience through separate tools and processes.

PCI compliance, fraud protection, and checkout security

PCI (Payment Card Industry) compliance, fraud protection, and checkout security can be a headache. But there’s good news: using a SaaS provider with your headless architecture can help to reduce the work for your internal IT team and streamline the process of staying compliant and secure. This is because SaaS providers can take on the risk and manage the process for you.

Limitless capabilities in personalization

Headless commerce’s open architecture makes it possible to accomplish anything you can dream up. You can use pre-built integrations with platforms for enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), and many more functions. Or you can opt to custom build using APIs and SDKs. When you open the door of decoupling your front and back end, your imagination is the only limit.

Is headless commerce fit for all ecommerce stores? 

The short answer is no—headless is not a good fit for every ecommerce store. If your business is doing well enough with a traditional architecture, it may not be worth the financial and time resources to invest in headless. It all depends on what you’re trying to achieve–then evaluating if headless is the best way to get you there.

But if you’re looking to create a more personalized and unique customer experience coupled with more flexible development, and you have the development resources to support a headless transformation, then headless may be right up your alley.

If you say “yes” to at least two of these scenarios, headless ecommerce is worth considering further:

  • I already have an established infrastructure, and it’s not always easy to re-platform another tool into our existing technology.
  • I feel we’re moving slower than competitors because I can’t simultaneously make front- and back-end adjustments.
  • I want my shopping experience to be fast for all shoppers, and to have more granular control over the elements that affect performance and site speed.
  • My storefront theme or template isn’t as customizable as I’d like.
  • I don’t have a native mobile app for iOS or Android, or my mobile shopping app isn’t as user-friendly as I’d like it to be.
  • I want to build a unique storefront ecommerce experience that isn’t possible with my current platform (e.g., smart mirrors, wearable tech, vending machines, etc.)

Consider your costs.

As you decide how to go headless, consider costs and time. The pricing for an enterprise headless project could cost anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000, plus annual maintenance costs, depending on the functionality, supporting tools, and level of customization.

Other channels built on a headless platform (like a mobile app, audio stream, or video game integration) could cost as low as $99 a month if you use an app to build your custom storefront.

At the end of the day, the cost of headless varies depending on the complexity of your build. Building and implementation are just one set of costs. Don’t forget to scope out fees paid to external agencies, or monthly costs such as subscriptions to a headless CMS platform. 

Headless commerce vs. traditional commerce

A headless architecture arms merchants with more tools to reach a growing base of customers than a traditional ecommerce platform (also known as a monolithic platform) would.

A better analogy might be that headless commerce severs the marriage between your front and backends. But in this divorce, each side comes out a winner, since changes to one side can be made without disrupting the other. This saves time and allows you to deliver a better customer experience across your different customer segments.

Divorcing the front and backends also opens up the possibility to use what’s best for converting customers on the website. The most common use case would be for pushing content to the frontend through a brand’s existing CMS instead of its commerce platform. That way, you can alter on-site content without going through your commerce backend. 

If your company has very few systems needing to plug into the frontend, you may actually be better served by a full-suite commerce platform.

You can even use multiple platforms.

With a headless commerce solution, you don’t need to use the same CMS as your ecommerce backend. You can publish content updates to any of your storefronts using your existing CMS—be that WordPress, Contentful, or Squarespace—without settling for a less-than-ideal ecommerce platform.

Tom Hirst, owner of Run the Show, explains: “A cool trend that I’m seeing is companies who’re bringing two or more content management systems together. For example, many marketing teams are familiar with WordPress for editing blog and page-level content, yet the businesses’ sales and logistics team may much prefer Shopify for ecommerce.”

Headless commerce examples

Time for some inspiration. Let’s look at a few brands that went headless on Shopify to maximize their performance, improve their customer experience, and ultimately boost their business. Here are some headless commerce examples:

ILIA

Clean beauty and cosmetics company ILIA is dedicated to making sure customers get matched with the right shade for their skin color. Their website uses diverse and beautiful imagery, as well as a “compare shades” and “find my shade” functionality.

But they found that these sophisticated tools made the web experience clunky and slow. That’s when they decided to develop their own headless solution on Shopify Plus. Now, the experience is fast and seamless, and developers have the ability to experiment with new types and formats of content.

Once they went headless, they saw immediate benefits like:

  • 20% efficiency boost for developer deployments
  • 18% exit rate decrease
  • 10% bounce rate improvement

Moving to a headless solution has brought a new way of thinking in terms of content modelling and figuring out all the different content types we can leverage. In the long-term, it's really going to bring more organizational performance, and more streamlined ways of thinking about how to enhance our customers’ shopping experience.”

— Albert Chong, Vice President of Digital at ILIA

Read the ILIA case study here.

KOTN

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Online clothing retailer Kotn used the Shopify Storefront API to consolidate two stores into one. The new single storefront had a new CMS, checkout page, and custom product pages. It no longer needed custom apps and hacks to deliver the personalized out-of-the-box experience it wanted customers to have. 

Since going headless, Kotn has been able to make site changes much more quickly than before. And that’s not the only thing that’s fast: Kotn’s site speed is incredibly quick, even during high traffic and peak seasons. It also has the infrastructure to scale as the business grows and new technologies emerge. 

Shopify covers 80% of our needs, and I think that’s common across all merchants. It’s that next 20% where headless comes in and where we really spend our time. What we’re trying to do is let Shopify handle the stuff they do so well, and we can focus on what makes us unique. That’s where we’ve really gone with our thinking around being headless.”

— Benjamin Sehl, Co-founder of Kotn

Read the Kotn case study here.

Complex Networks

Complex Networks was known for its community event ComplexCon, a multi-sensory convention where attendees enjoyed streetwear pop-ups, fashion and music influencer appearances, live performances, and exclusive product releases, and more.

Until 2020 that is, when the pandemic forced Complex Networks to go headless. The company, along with its partners Jam3 and Reiss Group, developed ComplexLand. This first-of-its-kind experience used augmented reality and 3D to immerse attendees into an entirely digital landscape. They could play games, shop, explore, and enjoy entertainment.

The event raked in:

  • 3.2 million minutes of audience engagement
  • 1.3 million commerce and brand engagements
  • 9 million total attendee engagements

Shopify Plus helped us make sure our strategy was going to work from a velocity standpoint and for checkout, inventory issues, bots, and queuing. We had really expert advice from Shopify Plus to make sure the event was a success. It was a great collaboration.”

— Mike Riess, Founder of Riess Group.

Read the Complex Networks case study here.

Ready to go headless?

Whether you’re a seasoned business with established infrastructure or still building out your enterprise architecture, if you’re checking several of the boxes above, a headless commerce approach might be right for you.

Likewise, if your business operations are becoming more complex and you want to differentiate by competing on experience rather than price, you may indeed have a headless future. 

Headless FAQ

What is a headless approach?

A headless approach involves separating the front-end and back-end of your ecommerce website to allow for rapid development and customization on each end. It is different from a full-stack approach, which calls for the front-end and back-end to be developed in tandem, leaving less room for expedited changes.

Is Shopify a headless CMS?

Shopify is an ecommerce platform that plays nicely with a headless setup. Merchants can use third-party applications to build the front-end presentation layer and pull data from Shopify via the GraphQL Storefront API. The API also lets you design and implement your own checkout flow, as well as build a cart that unlocks features like estimated totals with taxes, duties, and discounts.

How do I get started with headless commerce?

  1. Decide whether you want to keep or switch your commerce platform.
  2. Choose a headless CMS.
  3. Sync your CMS and APIs. 
  4. Consider costs and time. 

About the authors

Elise Dopson

Elise Dopson is a freelance writer for leading B2B SaaS companies. She teaches everything she knows through Peak Freelance.

Adeel Qayum

Adeel Qayum is a writer and content strategist based in Southeast Asia. He helps businesses with their online marketing endeavours, writes for top magazines and publications, and dances salsa in his free time.